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Choke Hold

by Todd Babiak

We love our bad boys. We love their jaunty imprudence. We love their freedom, even as we recognize that a world dominated by those freedoms would be quite unlivable. We love Jeremy Little, the hero of Choke Hold, Todd Babiak’s very fine first novel, and we love him partly because he loves that classic bad-boy obsession, fighting.

Although we meet Jeremy first in Boston, most of the action takes place in the small prairie town of Seymour, Alberta, the home to which he returns, where his father and his brother and most of his high school lust-objects and tormentors still live. It’s not a triumphant return – he’s the bankrupt proprietor of a failed martial arts school, and he hasn’t been very lucky in love either. And you’re thinking ohmygawd not another duty read featuring yet another sensitive tough guy in a heartless prairie town. But one of the joys of this novel is that it shrugs off genre constraints through sheer force of language, through an accumulation of detail that captures small town life in all its stupefying banality and hidden, shameful richness.

It captures the allure of fighting too. I share the liberal, middle-class distaste for violence that’s voiced by several of the novel’s characters, who can’t understand why Jeremy Little loves to fight. It’s not just because the town bully once publicly humiliated him by beating him up and pissing on his head, though that’s part of it. It’s because, as he puts it, “Fighting is everything…. And everything is fighting.” And people who pretend to deplore it are just not acknowledging the power of “blood and guts and sweat in a world operated by computers and wimps.” Tough-guy talk, perhaps, but the martial arts and fight scenes are so voluptuously rendered that you sense the eros hidden at their brutal heart, and you understand that even fighting is a kind of communication. “When people touch you,” Jeremy says, “they give you information. What to do with it?”

What Todd Babiak does with it puts a welcome choke hold on the reader, one they won’t want quickly loosened.